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Julian Assange on Being Placed on NSA “Manhunting” List & Secret Targeting of WikiLeaks Supporters

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Top-secret documents leaked by Edward Snowden have revealed new details about how the United States and Britain targeted the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks after it published leaked documents about the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. According to a new article by The Intercept, Britain’s top spy agency, the Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ, secretly monitored visitors to a WikiLeaks website by collecting their IP addresses in real time, as well as the search terms used to reach the site. One document from 2010 shows that the National Security Agency added WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange to a “manhunting” target list, together with suspected members of al-Qaeda. We speak to Assange live from the Ecuadorean embassy in London, where he has sought political asylum since 2012. Also joining us is his lawyer Michael Ratner, president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights.

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StoryOct 26, 2010WikiLeaks Founder Julian Assange on Iraq War Logs, “Tabloid Journalism” and Why WikiLeaks Is “Under Siege”
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Top-secret documents leaked by Edward Snowden have revealed new details about how the United States and Britain targeted the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks after it published leaked documents about the Afghan War. According to a new article co-written by Glenn Greenwald published this morning by The Intercept, Britain’s top spy agency, the Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ, secretly monitored visitors to a WikiLeaks site by collecting their IP addresses in real time as well as the search terms used to reach the site. One document from 2010 shows that the National Security Agency added WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange to a, quote, “manhunting” target list, together with suspected members of al-Qaeda.

AMY GOODMAN: Another document reveals the NSA considered designating WikiLeaks as a “malicious foreign actor.” According to The Intercept, “Such a designation would have allowed the group to be targeted with extensive electronic surveillance—without the need to exclude U.S. persons from the surveillance searches.” In addition, the leaked documents reveal the United States urged its foreign allies to file criminal charges against Assange over the group’s publication of the Afghanistan War Logs.

Joining us now from London is Wikileaks founder and editor Julian Assange, talking to us by the phone from the Ecuadorean embassy where he has political asylum since August 2012. Here in New York, we’re joined by Michael Ratner, the attorney for Julian Assange, president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights.

When you read this, Julian — welcome back to Democracy Now! — what were your thoughts on being put on this “manhunting”—their words—”manhunting” list together with al-Qaeda?

JULIAN ASSANGE: Good morning, Amy.

Well, my first thought was, well, finally, we have some proof that we can present to the public for what we have long suspected for a variety of reasons. And it is strange to see your name in that context with people who are suspected of serious criminal acts of terrorism. Clearly, that is a massive overstep.

We’ve heard a lot in the propaganda pushed on this issue by Clapper and others in the U.S. national security complex that, of course, this pervasive surveillance is justified by the need to stop U.S.—stop terrorist attacks being conducted on the United States and its allies. But we’ve seen example after example come out over the last few months showing the National Security Agency and its partners, GCHQ, engaged in economic espionage.

And here we have an example where the type of espionage being engaged in is spying on a publisher—WikiLeaks, the publishing organization, and a publisher—me, personally. And the other material that came out in relation to GCHQ was from 2012, and that shows that GCHQ was spying on our service and our readers, so not just the publisher as an organization, not just the publisher as a person, but also the readers of a publisher. And that’s clearly, I believe, not something that the United States population agrees with, let alone other people.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you surprised by anything that came out in these latest documents?

JULIAN ASSANGE: I was surprised about how someone is added to the foreign malicious actor list. So, the National Security Agency went through a process to try and—at quite a high level, at the office of the legal director, to designate us as a foreign—foreign malicious actor, which means that our U.S. personnel can be spied on, or our U.S. supporters or associates. The, quote, “human network” that supports WikiLeaks in the United States can be targeted without going through any of the checks that the National Security Agency might normally engage in.

And if you read the detail of that writing, you can see that it’s quite a lackadaisical, cavalier approach to going into that very serious step of deciding to spy on a publisher and all its U.S. personnel. And we must assume that news agencies like Reuters or the Deutsche Presse Agency that have foreign correspondents in the United States, who are American citizens or American citizens working overseas, could be similarly affected.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Julian Assange, the Intercept article quotes from the document you’re referencing. It was from July 2011 and showed how two NSA officers considered designating WikiLeaks a, quote, “malicious foreign actor.” I want to read from the exchange between the NSA agency’s general counsel and an arm of its Threat Operations Center. Quote, “Can we treat a foreign server who stores, or potentially disseminates leaked or stolen US data on it’s [sic] server as a 'malicious foreign actor' for the purpose of targeting with no defeats? Examples: WikiLeaks, thepiratebay.org, etc.” The response was, quote, “Let us get back to you.” Julian Assange, your response, and what the documents reveal about the process that the NSA or GCHQ go through to designate someone a malicious foreign actor?

JULIAN ASSANGE: What they mean here by “no defeats,” it’s sort of no protections for any form of interception of content of U.S. citizens communicating with that organization or through that foreign server. And the particular document that this came out in was actually not a document that was formally looking at this issue in relation to us; rather, it was a extraction from that consideration that happened sometime in the past and then was put into one of their, if you like, sort of frequently asked questions internally in the National Security Agency. So we’re quite lucky to have found this reference.

We were used as an example of how could you in fact target these servers, even when they were used by people in the United States. And the answer is, yes, that can be done. And we don’t know what the answer was in our particular case, but given that the general example is yes, then we must assume that it was. And I think, really, now General Alexander needs to come clean and say, in fact, was that permitted in the case of WikiLeaks, and did the National Security Agency proceed in spying on our U.S. personnel or our lawyers, for example, like Michael Ratner, who’s based in New York.

AMY GOODMAN: Julian, we have Michael here, but I did want to ask—you’ve been in the embassy, haven’t had natural daylight, sunlight, for 608 days. How are you? And does the information that has come out of this change in any way what your thoughts are about your future?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I just find it helpful that—in preparing the asylum application, of course, we looked into many details like this that were quite technical, a big puzzle of many pieces, which some organization, like a foreign office or the Ecuadorean Department of Foreign Affairs, has the time to assess, but of course it’s harder for the public to understand, that documents like this show very readily sort of the scale of the U.S. response to our publications and why it’s, unfortunately, necessary for me to apply and receive asylum and for some of our other personnel, like Sarah Harrison, who’s a British citizen, to be in legally advised exile in Germany.

AMY GOODMAN: And will the information about whether there is a sealed indictment, which this seems to indicate there isn’t—do you have any further information about that, an indictment against you in the United States?

AMY GOODMAN: The district attorney of Virginia gave the last information on that issue and formally stated publicly that the investigation continues.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Julian Assange, we want to thank you for being with us, founder and editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks. Will this change anything you do inside the embassy, when you see how—further information about your being monitored and people even going to the website—what is it—GCHQ, the equivalent of the NSA in Britain, collecting the IP addresses in real time of people who even access the WikiLeaks site?

JULIAN ASSANGE: The WikiLeaks security model has always been predicated under the basis that we are dealing with very powerful organizations that do not obey the rule of law, whether those are powerful criminal organizations, whether those are corrupt governments in Africa, or whether they’re spy agencies allied with the West or Russia or China. And so, it doesn’t—we’ve always been prepared to defend against that sort of scrutiny. The U.K. government has publicly admitted that they’ve spent six million pounds in the last year surveilling the embassy through police forces alone. We see from these documents that we must assume that GCHQ is also monitoring the situation. That’s part of—I suppose, part of the sad state of the rule of law in the West, where these organizations behave that way. I think the days are clearly numbered that they can get away with it without being exposed. But I’ll leave you to Michael Ratner now.

AMY GOODMAN: Thanks so much, Julian. Julian Assange, founder and editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks. When we come back, we are joined by Michael Ratner, legal adviser to Julian Assange. We’ll also be joined from London, not in exile in the Ecuadorean embassy, but in a studio in London, by Jesselyn Radack, the legal adviser to Edward Snowden who was stopped at Heathrow Airport on Sunday, asked, “Who is Edward Snowden? Where is Bradley Manning?” and other such questions. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Top-secret documents leaked by Edward Snowden have revealed new details about how the United States and Britain targeted the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks after it published leaked documents about the Afghan War. According to a new article written by Glenn Greenwald and Ryan Gallagher published this morning by The Intercept, Britain’s top spy agency, the Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ, secretly monitored visitors to a WikiLeaks site by collecting their IP addresses in real time as well as the search terms used to reach the site.

AMY GOODMAN: One of the documents leaked by Edward Snowden details a “manhunting timeline” that shows how the U.S. tried to pressure other nations to prosecute Julian Assange. One read, quote, “The United States on 10 August urged other nations with forces in Afghanistan, including Australia, United Kingdom, and Germany, to consider filing criminal charges against Julian Assange.”

Joining us now is Michael Ratner. He is the president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is the legal adviser to Julian Assange.

So, talk about this last point, Michael, first what you’re most surprised by in this piece that just came out at The Intercept, and particularly the U.S. pushing other countries to prosecute Julian.

MICHAEL RATNER: Well, what I was really shocked by was the extent the U.S. and U.K. have gone through to try and get and destroy WikiLeaks and Julian Assange and their network of supporters. I mean, it’s astounding. And it’s been going on for years. And it also, as Julian pointed out, tells us why he is in the Ecuadorean embassy and why Ecuador has given him asylum. He has every reason to heavily fear what would happen to him in this country, in the United States, if he were to be ever taken here. So I think, for me, that’s a very, very critical point, justifies every reason why Ecuador gave him asylum.

And the document you’re addressing, Amy, what they call the manhunt timeline, which is extraordinary because it groups him among, you know, a whole bunch of people who the U.S. considers terrorists, it also, interestingly, groups them—groups them among Palestinians, which is pretty interesting in itself. But to have Julian on that list as a manhunt timeline, and it says prosecute him wherever you can get him, is pretty extraordinary. It doesn’t say you necessarily need a good reason to prosecute him; it just says, basically, prosecute him. And what it’s reminiscent, to me, is of the program that took place in this country in the '60s and the ’70s, COINTELPRO, counterintelligence procedures, when the FBI said, “We have to basically destroy the black civil rights movement, the New Left and others, and prosecute them, get them however you can, get rid of them.” And so, the manhunt timeline, even its name is chilling. But that's what it is. It’s an effort to try and get WikiLeaks and their personnel, wherever they are in the world.

And, of course, we’ve seen some of that. You’ve had people on this show. When people cross borders who are associates with WikiLeaks, they get stopped. They get surveilled all the time. We’ve seen—we’ve seen efforts to take—to basically destroy WikiLeaks by stealing their laptops on a trip that went from Sweden to Germany. We’ve seen efforts across the board, in country after country. Germany, they surveil conferences when WikiLeaks people speak there, everywhere. So, actually, this program is not just an abstraction. This program has been implemented. And the manhunt timeline, I think, is incredibly significant, considering that the manhunt is an effort to locate, find and destroy—in some cases, kill—kill people.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Michael Ratner, what do you think the appropriate response should be to something like that? Is there any legal action that Assange’s legal team can take in response to this?

MICHAEL RATNER: Julian Assange, in his statement to the article, said that he felt that the U.S. ought to appoint a special prosecutor, not just to investigate what’s happening to WikiLeaks and a publisher and journalist, but across the board what’s happening to publishers and journalists in this entire country right now and around the world, where the U.S. is trying to basically say publishing is a crime. And that’s what they’re saying. That’s what the Obama administration is saying. And Julian is strongly suggesting, and I support, the idea of a special prosecutor to look into this.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Is that aspect of it unprecedented, though? I mean, you drew comparisons between COINTELPRO and manhunt timeline, but the fact that publishing, people who work in journalism, are being monitored in this way by intelligence agencies here, has that occurred before?

MICHAEL RATNER: On this level, I don’t think it’s occurred, on this extreme level. You had the manhunt program. You also had what they call—what do they call it? The ANTICRISIS GIRL program. And that’s the dragnet—I don’t know how it got that name.


MICHAEL RATNER: What does—what is that about? I mean, I don’t know. Except what it is, is whenever I search for WikiLeaks on my computer, or when I go visit the WikiLeaks site, in real time, the GCHQ, the British intelligence agency, can take in my IP address, take in what I’m searching for in real time. Now, they gave an—they did a number of slides showing how they could do this. We don’t know how extensively they’ve implemented that program, but that means that every one of us who have ever gone to a WikiLeaks site to look for a document could technically be surveilled and our IP address taken in.

AMY GOODMAN: And also the hacktivist group Anonymous and Pirate Bay. Explain.

MICHAEL RATNER: Well, Anonymous, they actually did designate as what they call a malicious foreign actor. And a malicious foreign actor, which is what they were deciding whether to designate WikiLeaks as or not—and we don’t know what the final decision was, whether WikiLeaks was designated as a malicious foreign actor, but Anonymous apparently was. And what it means is any restrictions on government surveillance of anything—my conversations, my email—are completely lifted, whether you’re an American or whatever. Any of my communications to anywhere in the world to that website, to Anonymous, going on chat rooms with Anonymous, going on tweets with Anonymous, those can be taken in and surveilled. It’s an incredibly broad power. We don’t know, as I said, if it was used against WikiLeaks. It was certainly discussed, and they asked to use it against WikiLeaks. We will know, I hope, soon, if and when a lawsuit is ever filed around these issues.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what do the documents reveal about what the U.S. officials said they were doing and what in fact they were doing? Because not only was their surveillance of U.S. citizens problematic, but also of foreign citizens.

MICHAEL RATNER: Well, I’m sorry, I’m not following the question exactly, Nermeen.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I mean, in other words, Michael Ratner, the U.S. officials have claimed that they only surveil foreign—foreign citizens who are, in some sense, either potentially guilty of or likely to be involved in terrorist activities. But if you’re monitoring every visitor to a website, whether it’s WikiLeaks or Pirate Bay or—I mean, that’s obviously not the case.

MICHAEL RATNER: You know, this is just obfuscation and lies by our officials, which has been consistent. Obviously, if there’s a WikiLeaks website overseas, what they’re really saying is everybody who visits that website, American or otherwise, we can surveil. So it’s complete—it’s complete B.S. This is just untrue. We are all being surveilled.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael, we want you to stay with us as we bring in another guest from London. Nermeen?

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